When you were a kid, chances are you had a fort of some kind—a tree fort in the summer, a snow fort in the winter and maybe even a cardboard box fort or pillow-blanket fort.
Forts played a huge role in Canada’s history. From the Acadian shores guarded by Nova Scotia’s Fort Louisbourg to the prairies’ Fort Walsh where Sioux leader, Sitting Bull, appeared on the run from the US Army, each fort has a unique history and story. They’re a great place to visit for history buffs—or just those travelling with family (because kids love forts).
As it turns out, the areas around many forts provide a great opportunity for outdoor recreation as well as a chance to learn about Canada’s history.
Fort Louisbourg, Nova Scotia
Originally established by France in 1719, this fort saw many battles between French and British forces as they fought for North American control. Strolling around its grounds, you’ll encounter interpreters in the costumes of 18th-century French colonists and soldiers. You can learn about the Mi'kmaw heritage of Unama'ki (Cape Breton Island) at the fort’s interpretive centre. Want to know what it was like to fire a cannon? There are programs that provide that opportunity. And nothing beats watching the fife and drum corps march down from the parapet that surrounds the fortress walls.
Outside the fort, there are numerous hiking trails that will lead you to various coastal views of the Louisbourg harbour, including the Old Town Trail, Simon’s Trail and Battery Walk; most of them are relatively short and easy hikes.John Geary
Fort George, Ontario
Fort George was smack-dab in the middle of the War of 1812. Established in 1796, right across the Niagara River from Fort Niagara, it initially fell to the Americans only to be recaptured by the British. They eventually abandoned it for Fort Mississauga.
Wandering its paths today, you can check out where the officers lived and ate, and watch interpreters demonstrate how a musket was fired—or sometimes misfired. You can also hear a “military doctor” talk about 1800s medical procedures and see the surgical tools used.
The fort is located close to Butler’s Barracks, established during the War of 1812. You can cycle the Niagara Heritage Trail between the fort and the barracks. For a lengthier ride, complete the circuit back to the fort along the Niagara River.John Geary
Fort Walsh, Saskatchewan
Built in 1875, this fort was the largest and most heavily armed fort in the early days of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP), the forerunners of today’s RCMP.
The Sioux leader, Sitting Bull, brought his tribe into Canada to this fort following the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana. He formed a bond with Superintendent James Walsh and maintained a precarious balance between the Sioux and US troops that followed them into Canada, trying to coax them back into the US. Walsh left the fort after a five-year juggling act, and the Sioux headed south.
The fort offers an Indigenous Culture Camp for those interested in learning about the local Peoples who inhabited the Cypress Hills for centuries.
One of the best ways to enjoy the outdoors in that area involves mounting a horse and exploring the area on a trail ride with the nearby Historic Reesor Ranch. While you don’t ride horseback to the fort, you can travel the trails in the surrounding Cypress Hills.John Geary
Fort Calgary, Alberta
Like its counterpart in Saskatchewan, this was another NWMP fort. Established in 1875 at the Bow and Elbow Rivers confluence, it was a base for patrols during the CPR railway construction.
Modern activities include guided walking tours, audio tours narrated by Indigenous storytellers and fireside stories.
Paddlers can travel the Elbow River in canoes or kayaks. Levels can be low, so be prepared to get out and carry it through some shallows. The best put-in is either at Sandy Beach or Stanley Park; the latter can also be used as a takeout unless you want to paddle farther, all the way to MacDonald Bridge takeout just a few minutes from the fort.
You can also paddle around the Glenmore Reservoir if rivers aren’t your cup of tea. Then, it’s just a short drive from the fort.Fort Calgary
Fort Langley, British Columbia
Originally built by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the 1820s to compete with American fur traders in the Pacific Northwest, this fort eventually became used as a defence against American territorial expansion. Vancouver Island Governor James Douglas sailed up the Fraser River on a paddlewheeler to the fort in 1858, something you can still do today. He was concerned about American gold prospectors inundating the area because of the Fraser River gold strike, so he declared the mainland to be a British colony.John Geary
These days you can enjoy the reconstructed fort by watching a blacksmith bang out items on an anvil, partaking in some food baked in a 19th-century style or even listening to Christmas carols sung by a choir if you visit during the festive season.
One of the fort’s most exciting activities involves “glamping” inside the timber walls in one of the five Parks Canada oTENTiks. Each one is themed to represent a different aspect of the fort’s history: First Nations, Hawaiian, French-Canadian voyageurs, North American gold prospectors and a Scottish boat builder’s tent.